Unique among the bikes in this test, Marin's Rocky Ridge has been designed from the ground up as an aggressive cross-country machine. There's no race bike lineage or any free-ride pretensions, just a frame and component package designed to hit XC trails hard and fast.
With a relatively tightly-defined purpose to aim for, Marin's designers have been able to start with a clean sheet of paper. The Rocky Ridge doesn't have to be able to survive hard landings from 6ft drops or be capable of tail-whips over large doubles. It just has to be light enough to climb well, nimble enough to make light work of high speed singletrack and tough enough to take big rocks, the odd unexpected drainage channel and the occasional misjudged speed hop landing in its stride.
Careful tubing selection helps make the bike light enough to do its job - the tubes feature thin walls and a bit of judicious gram-shaving where it won't prejudice strength. The coffin-section top and down tubes are certainly distinctive, although that's probably the only advantage that they have over more conventional round or oval sections. Surprisingly slender stays at the rear plug into cut-away dropouts and feature elegantly forged braces. All this subtly lightweight metalwork is given a strength boost for tackling the unexpected with a pair of neatly welded, open-ended box gussets at the head tube. And the nimbleness? That comes partly courtesy of the relatively low weight and partly thanks to the geometry, blending a roomy cockpit for all-day ride comfort with a radically sloping top tube for a lowered centre of gravity and confidence-boosting chuckability.
Up front a Fox Vanilla R fork provides 130mm (5in) of smooth, controllable travel. Although it lacks the adjustable travel of its RockShox rivals to keep the front end down on steep climbs, it's not something we missed. Five inches used to be considered long travel for downhill rigs, but bikes like the Rocky Ridge prove that such travel can work just as well on trail-biased hardtails.
A hard riding frame needs hard wearing components, so it's good to see some sound choices gracing the Marin. A Shimano-based transmission provides typically reliable shifting and the Truvativ Firex cranks look good and work as well as the Shimano alternative. Hayes HFX-9 hydraulic discs provide plenty of stopping power, though the calliper design is beginning to look a tad clunky in comparison to the competition, and we'd like to see a bigger rotor up front. We have no complaints with the finishing kit though - it's all top stuff. We particularly like the WTB tyres, which provide just the right blend of tenacious grip and shock-reducing air volume without being too weighty.
Building a long travel hardtail capable of covering large distances at speed isn't as easy as it sounds. Geometry, tube selection and component choice all play a part, but ultimately it's how all these different bits of a bike come together that defines how well it rides. An extreme cross-country hardtail really is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Rocky Ridge is one of the best all-round trail bikes we've ridden - it won't win any awards for low weight, but grippy tyres and a ride position that blends efficient pedalling with perfectly centred weight distribution make for a contented, if not exactly explosive, climbing partner. Better still, the combination of a long top tube with a short stem, long wheelbase and spot-on front end geometry provides that elusive and contradictory blend of agility and stability that defines the very best bikes. Whether you're blasting a section of high speed, twisty, rock-strewn singletrack or gasping up a rooty, slippery, granny-ring grinder of a climb, this bike goes exactly where it's pointed and doesn't come over all argumentative just when you need to make that vital, calculated lunge or last second change of direction. Overcook it into a corner or a rocky section of trail and the powerful brakes, oh-so smooth fork and confidence inspiring geometry mean you'll probably still come out on top... and grinning.
The Rocky Ridge also still feels recognisably like a cross-country bike rather than a pared-down dirt jumper. It's stiff, sure, but not overly harsh, and the confidence provided by the longer fork and compact geometry doesn't come at the expense of pedalability. The Rocky Ridge is one of the best definitions of the word 'compromise' we've come across, and it's ideal for riders who like to build fun into day-long rides.
MBUK'S MECHANIC SAYS...
Built for the job
What makes the Rocky Ridge interesting is the way it was conceived from the ground up as a bike for 'aggressive XC' riding. You can see three goals in the frame design: strength (front end gussets), low weight (careful tube selection) and agility (compact frame triangles). It all works really well.